GMAC: Business School Application Surge Is Not A Fad

After a banner year in 2020, MBA application volume continues to increase at top business schools around the world, according to the latest GMAC Application Trends Survey.

A major new survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council shows that international student applications to U.S. business schools rebounded in 2021 as women and under-represented groups flocked to full-time MBA programs — and the data strongly suggest that the bounce-back is not temporary.

Application volume to business schools grew 0.4% from 2020, according to GMAC’s 2021 Application Trends Survey, released today (November 17). Last year was already a banner year for applications, according to GMAC’s 2020 survey, as economic uncertainty after the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic helped boost applications at 67% of all business master’s programs. But some wondered if the renewed interest would be sustainable.

The 2021 survey suggests that, at least for now, it wasn’t a fluke — which Poets&Quants‘ own reporting has established“Candidates looked for alternative career options during the COVID induced recession and business schools introduced more flexible admissions policies, resulting in soaring application volumes last year,” says Sangeet Chowfla, president and CEO of GMAC. “The question was whether this was a fleeting event caused by the pandemic or the start of a new uptick in applications. In this context, the 2021 application cycle indicates that the surging demand for graduate business education is not a passing fad but has staying power beyond 2020.”


GMAC CEO Sangeet Chowfla

GMAC’s annual survey focuses on global demand for graduate management education. This year, survey data was collected between July 8 and August 23, 2021, from nearly 1,000 MBA and business master’s programs from around the world. 

Before the pandemic, the number of applications for graduate business education programs hit a three-year low, contracting by 3.1 percent in 2019. This was caused by two main factors: A strong employment market for domestic candidates and unwelcoming immigration policies in the United States and the United Kingdom for international candidates.

In 2020, however, the uncertainty triggered by the global pandemic reversed the application slump, resulting in growth of 2.4%. 

“This shift was similar to the countercyclical impact on application volumes in times of economic uncertainty last seen during the financial crisis of 2008-2009,” the report says. “In addition, as candidates hedged their risks and schools introduced more flexible admissions policies, the application volumes soared in 2020. The 2021 application cycle is set in the context of this dramatic growth in applications in the preceding year.” 

Growth trends for application volume at top business schools, 2017-2021. Source:GMAC 2021 Application Trends Survey


After the election of President Donald Trump, a 2017 GMAC survey identified a significant  slump in international student applications to U.S. business schools. The “Trump Effect” was measured in other business school surveys as well.

“We had seen quite a bit of depression in international student volumes to the United States, but last year we started to see a lift from that. Then of course the pandemic hit. While we saw an increase in interest amongst international students to study in the United States, it did not manifest itself into applications or particularly enrollments because of travel and visa restrictions which are fairly severe,” Chowfla told Poets&Quants last month

That trend is reversing after years of pent-up demand, according to GMAC’s latest survey. Applications from international candidates rose 4.1% in 2021 compared to a decline of 3.8% in domestic candidates. In fact, more programs in the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom reported a decline in domestic applications compared to other countries and regions.

“This difference between international and domestic application volume is especially apparent for full-time MBA programs among leading business schools,” the report says. 

The share of full-time two-year MBA programs showing growth in international candidates doubled from 28 percent in 2019 to 57 percent in 2021. Twice as many U.S. top-50 MBA programs saw an increase in applications from international candidates (73%) as domestic candidates (36%), the report finds.

“Business school learning is experiential and relies heavily on interactions, discussions and cohort and alumni networks.  This is impossible without a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds,” said Katy Montgomery, Associate Dean of Degree Programmes at INSEAD and a GMAC board member.  “As student mobility gradually returns, the diversity it brings to a classroom will only benefit and enrich campus life.”


Application growth male vs. female. Source: GMAC 2021 Application Trends Survey

Women representation at business schools has been mixed in recent studies. Despite gains women have made in enrollments in some U.S. B-schools, they continue to lag men, particularly at the graduate level, GMAC found in its first ever global report on diversity released last month. In the major regions examined, the lowest area for female participation in terms of ratio is in Europe.

In this survey on application trends, GMAC found that more women are applying to full-time MBA programs, but growth of women applying to part-time or online programs was at its lowest level since 2017. 52% of full-time one-year MBAs and 56% of two-year MBAs reported an increase in women applications. That compares to 41% of all MBA programs combined.

“This year’s application data also indicates that globally, women candidates emerging from the shadow of the pandemic refocused on their career ambitions, with three in five (60%) full-time two-year MBA programs reporting an increase in applications from female candidates compared to two in five (43%) programs reporting growth from male candidates,” the report says. 

“In comparison, a much smaller share of online MBA programs (42%) reported growth in applications from female candidates, indicating women’s preference to return to in-person, full time learning.”


In the U.S., women and underrepresented minorities (URM) reported similar desire to study on campus. In 2021, 56% full-time two-year MBA programs reported growth in URM applications compared to 37% in pre-pandemic 2019. Just 30% of online programs reported growth in URM applications.  

“Even more notably, female URM candidates demonstrated an impressive 22 percent increase between 2019 (38%) to 2021 (60%) in their share of applications for full-time two-year MBA programs,” the report found. 

Read the full 2021 Application Trends Survey here.


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